Northern Ireland’s MPs have largely rejected the concept of state regulation of the Press as debate raged ahead of the Leveson report being published later today.
Politicians from all parties except Sinn Fein said Press freedom was vital and should not be restricted by the recommendations from the review.
Westminster is divided on how recommendations from Lord Justice Leveson should be treated. Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will keep an open mind, while other senior Cabinet members, including former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson, have warned against state intervention.
However, Labour has called for the recommendations to be implemented in full and the matter could end up in a Commons vote that could be swayed by Northern Ireland’s MPs.
On Tuesday night, a letter signed by more than 80 MPs and peers — including former First Minister Lord Trimble — opposed “any form of statutory control” of the Press.
Most of Northern Ireland’s MPs rejected calls for the kind of legislative intervention demanded by campaigners like Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan.
Jim Shannon, DUP MP for Strangford, said: “I think the Press as it is, with some of the safeguards in place, is for the best and we should leave it well alone. If we didn’t have freedom of the Press, where would the freedom of speech be?”
Lagan Valley DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said he favoured a free Press together with beefed-up privacy laws.
Meanwhile, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said he favoured “some sort of sensible code of conduct”, while North Down Independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon referred to another letter by Tory MPs, supporting a “statutory underpinning” of rules for the Press.
She said: “I believe passionately in freedom of the Press and am really worried by calls from some Tory backbench MPs for much stricter Press regulation.
“I want to read Leveson's report before making any further comment, but I would hate to see a heavily regulated Press in the UK.''
Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader, said: “I do not think Leveson is a threat to Press freedom — the question is can the Press regulate itself in times of things like phone-hacking. It’s not about Press freedom, it’s about Press behaviour.”
Naomi Long, the Alliance MP for East Belfast, said she did not believe the status quo was working, but did not want to go as far as state regulation.
Her comments were echoed by Foyle MP Mark Durkan, of the SDLP, who said: “The status quo clearly isn’t the answer, but neither is creating an unwieldy state regulator. We need good Press standards and the more that can be done with no direct state control the better.”
Sinn Fein was the only party to back some state regulation of the media. “There is a need for Government to regulate the media to ensure that private individuals, or companies, do not stifle voices of opposition.
“The media market in Ireland is that of an oligopoly, concentrated in the hands of a few ultra-wealthy businessmen and big British media houses,” the party said in a statement.
“A healthier political culture and therefore healthier governance would significantly benefit from the diversity of competition within the media market.
“This is where the role of government lies.”